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Northern Composure? An American in Canada forsakes fiction in a world of mad fact

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By Ray Pride

Pure joy, pure bliss: I saw a movie called “Amelie” on Monday night that may make my fictional year.

Little tears sting my eyes throughout. I join friends from New York at a party for a film set in Los Angeles. We talk about what we have seen. I think of questions to ask the director of “Amelie” today.

I sleep on it. I wake a little after 10 on Tuesday to the words of my roommate at the Toronto International Film Festival. I’m supposed to interview David Lynch in a couple of hours, talk about the psycho-mayhem of “Mulholland Drive,” a movie of glittering absurdity.

But CNN is on in the living room. My colleague, Steve, and I watch the footage from New York. We’re kibitzing in a void, not really listening to each other, just commenting and theorizing so gravity does not pin us to the ground. Toronto local lines work, I can get online. Cell phone, forget about it. I have to assume my friends are fine. None of them live or work near the World Trade Center.

Steve and I watch the footage, ash-covered emergency vehicles slaloming between pedestrians, spilled into the street, faces mostly blank, some bloodied, all urgently getting away: from danger, from cameras, from mad fact.

The philosopher George Steiner has a new book out, “Grammars of Creation.” He continues his argument of many years that language is no longer possible, and has not been in the time that has spun out since the Holocaust. I can’t follow all his reasoning. But fiction I am concerned about today. Yesterday, audiences were shaken by Tim Blake Nelson’s Holocaust narrative, “The Grey Zone.” I decided to wait. I wanted joy, not gloom. Distraction, craft, the diversion of art: not the diversion of tragedy to fiction.

I blow off two morning screenings. The best movies at this year’s Toronto festival have been about happiness, the search for truth, the search for simple beauty. Jill Sprecher’s fine “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing” is one of the best of that bunch. But all conversations today will be about One Thing that does not involve Love or Happiness or things that we want to see in capital letters, such as America Under Siege.

Will David Lynch still want to talk? Will the director of “Amelie,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet, still want to discuss the notion of on-screen happiness and bliss later this afternoon?

Online for only seconds, my AOL Buddy List lights up with names: New Yorkers who are safe, for now, in their own homes, describing the din of voices and vehicles outside, the idea there is nowhere to go. A journalist I know was on her way to get passerby reactions after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. She forgot her police pass. She went back home. The second airliner hit. She is staring at the TV, ready to collect “local color.” But stays online. But stays indoors. “I’m fucked up,” she says, the deadpan of typed words as ashen as the faces on CNN.

Others ask me to pass messages along to friends at the festival. Mike saw the first explosion from his kitchen window across the river. Andrew is okay. Tell Scott’s friends the Bowery still stands.

Canadian television throws to its own commentators. “We go now to a sociology professor from Grimsby.”

Grim. Grimm’s fairytales: they’re just stories that go bump in the night. But who wants to go into the dark today? Movies, movie archetypes, they all seem unworthy at the moment. I don’t want to find myself at a great movie, I won’t be able to concentrate. I don’t want to fall into a crap movie like the Steve Martin dud, “Novocaine,” because life is just too short. Even the Bosnian war black comedy, “No Man’s Land,” is inappropriate. I want to watch the images on the tube, like I did during the L.A. riots. However shabby the analysis, however unclear the activity, however shaky the camera, this urban topography, the New York I know and love, is familiar. The fear on the faces is not. Can narrative contain chaos? A little girl is the only one who remembers to cry. Her mother wipes ash from her ruby cheeks with bottled water.

“I’m as close as I can get without being shooed away,” someone says on a cell phone to the Canadian equivalent of CNN.

It’s all too true to be good. Back on the real CNN, commentators invoke Tom Clancy. They wonder where the president is. Pulp fiction is their touchstone. Steve and I mention names like George Romero, watching the shots of the streets of Manhattan where no one walks, only runs, only gallops. We start to compare the events to other apocalyptic fictions, but stop suddenly, a silent compact: let’s talk about family, friends, what will become of civil liberties in the United States.

I may be in Canada a long time. I wonder what country I’ll be returning to.

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